Mac mini Hacks & Mods for Dummies
One of my most treasured "classic" books is How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive - A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. This book was written by John Muir (no, not that John Muir) and first published in 1969.
The author defined an "idiot", for the purposes of the book, as someone who knows nothing mechanically. It was targeted at people who were unknowledgeable but could see the value in performing virtually all of the required repairs to their air-cooled Beetles and busses.
I used the book, which was written in hippie speak, to rebuild engines and do countless other repairs. Although I no longer have a VW, I keep this motor-oil-stained book on the shelf with my other classics. It's the standard by which I measure all other "how to" books.
The "Dummy" for the Job
I enthusiastically accepted the job of reviewing Mac mini Hacks & Mods for Dummies, when our editor, Dan Knight, offered it to me. I'm a huge fan of this minuscule Mac but know very little about its inner workings.
I'm very aware of its shortcomings, so I have the willingness to try to improve it. I have performed hardware and software hacks on Macs in the past, so clearly I have an interest in that area as well.
Just take a look at your cute Mac mini. Isn't it just begging for a mod?
Some might ask, "Why should I spend $24.99 on a book when there is so much information like this on the Web?"
It's true, if you do a search on "Mac mini overclock", for instance, you will get a variety of instructions on the subject. Most of the authors of this information have performed the operation, which is extremely tricky and not for the faint of heart, only once. They may or may not have provided all of the cautionary information you need or described the specialty tools and optics required to perform the procedure with the least amount of risk.
When commencing an operation that could easily kill your Mac, who would you like to have telling you how to do it, someone who managed to do it just once?
John Rizzo has worked as an engineer for Boeing, building aircraft electronics. He purchased an original Mac 128K in 1984 and later performed his first Mac hack by soldering in more memory. Eventually, he hacked in a new motherboard and an internal hard drive. He's written several Macintosh and Windows books. His columns, features, reviews, news, and analytical stories have appeared in every major Mac magazine and several other computer magazines. John also publishes MacWindows.com, a site designed to help Macs get along in a Windows world.
Co-author, Arnold Reinhold has been programming computers since the vacuum tube days. He's been a loyal Mac user for 20 years. He has worked with spacecraft guidance, air traffic control, CAD, robotics, and machine vision. He has also written on the subject of Internet technology for two other books in the Dummies series.
Much of the content in this book was already outdated at the time of its publication. It was written prior to the introduction of Apple's "stealth upgraded" 1.33 - 1.5 GHz G4 minis and the January 2006 Intel minis. If you have one of these, some or much of the content may not apply to your Mac. You may be better off waiting for a second edition.
This review would have no credibility if I didn't try a couple of the procedures in the book. I will describe one procedure in the book where I ran into problem later in the review.
Part by Part
Part I: Owning a Mac mini
Part 1 of Mac mini Hacks & Mods for Dummies discusses the reasons why you might want to alter your mini. It explains what you are expected to know and where to find the information if you don't know it. An overview of the procedures is given, and it details how to organize for a mod.
There's a section about the best ways to travel with your mini, along with a very good glossary of port terminology. If you don't know USB 1.1 from USB 2.0 from FireWire 400, this and more is explained understandably and concisely.
A chapter in Part 1 explains exactly what kinds of things you can plug into your stock mini.
I ran into some misinformation here.
A product called the Tritton SEE2 is mentioned as a way to add an additional monitor to your mini via one of the USB ports. A visit to the company's website revealed that, although there were plans to manufacture one, no Mac version of the device is available and the current version can't be made to work with Macs.
In any event, do your own investigating before you buy anything.
Part II: Cracking Open the mini
Much of what follows in the book hinges on this part. It tells you how to properly open your mini's case and disassemble the internal parts. It also covers what will and won't void your warranty (if you still have one). There are good instructions for replacing the battery and resetting the PMU.
All of these instructions are easy to follow your first time inside the mini. Just be aware that the connectors may not want to budge easily the first time you disconnect them. This possibility is not mentioned in the book.
Apple may have made some changes in the connectors in recent minis. I found a small screwdriver to be useful in levering them out by their flanges. Don't pull on the wires, and be careful about what you lever against.
Part III: Upgrading the mini Yourself
This part covers installing and configuring upgrades such as internal Bluetooth, AirPort Extreme, memory, the hard drive, and the optical drive. It also covers options for external USB AirPort and Bluetooth.
I had already upgraded my mini's memory to 1 GB before I knew about this book, but the procedure for doing this and the other upgrades is described carefully and fully.
Part IV: Mods for the Home
In this section you can learn how to build a media center around your mini. It discusses how to choose and set up a TV, sound system, software, and DVR hardware as well as calling out the required connectors and adapters.
An interesting chapter in this part provides the instructions for using X-10 hardware with your mini to control all of the devices in your home. Since this uses very little processing power, you can continue to use your mini for other things.
This part also describes how you can use a mini as an effective tool in the kitchen.
Part V: Modding Your Car for the Mac mini
If you think it would be cool to install a mini in your car and use it as a car stereo with a huge database of tunes or combine it with a GPS for getting directions or use it for WAR driving, this part is for you. It covers hardware and software installation, wiring, and powering the mini in a car and selecting and installing a display.
Part VI: Maxi mini Mod Techniques
If you don't know how, this part will teach you how to solder. It also covers cutting the mini's case materials and the types of glue and paint to use on them. It discusses some home grown and commercial options for making the case appeal to your sense of aesthetics.
Also in this part are some useful hacks for the OS X 10.4 "Tiger" operating system and some of Apple's included programs.
If you are still mourning the loss of some of the features of the OS 9 interface, take heart. You can write a script that will put a Trash folder on the desktop or in the sidebar and route everything you put in it to the real Trash.
There are a couple of drawbacks to this. The icon you assign to your Trash folder doesn't change when you put something in it, nor does the discarded item show up in the folder, since it gets redirected to the real Trash. However, it does allow you to do away with the Dock entirely, if you wish. There are instructions for doing that and other Dock hacks, too.
I tried the Trash mod, and after I figured out that one line of the example script was shown wrapped and was not a new line, it worked great.
Additionally, a software option for providing a hierarchical menu is discussed.
Using a Fast External Drive
A chapter in this part is devoted to running a faster 3.5" external hard drive from the mini's internal interconnect board. Although the author mentions that you can make the cable adapter yourself and provides the pinouts, complete instructions for doing this aren't included. Instead, two sources in Australia are listed for obtaining ready made cables.
Nobody sits on the fence when it comes to overclocking. When the subject comes up, it's likely to spark a debate livelier than any political discussion. You either understand the overclocker completely or totally decry him.
Another Warning: The overclocking instructions in this book seem to apply only to the initial release of the G4 Mac mini. If you have a 1.33 or 1.5 GHz "late 2005" model, the jumper settings don't appear to be the same. I found this out the hard way; you don't have to.
Surface Mount Technology parts get smaller every few years. That's one of the things that makes the mini possible. You should know that each jumper involved in setting the mini's clock speed is the size of two small grains of salt pushed together, and they are spaced tightly on the board.
To do this mod, you should be an expert solderer and have the equipment mentioned in the book. If your eyesight is poor or if your hands shake, even a little, you should not attempt to overclock your mini.
I've been soldering for nearly 40 years and do it very well, yet I found this hack to be a real challenge.
Using the jumper position settings in the book, I first tried to clock my mini from 1.33 GHz to 1.5 GHz. This resulted in no boot tone or any other inclination for the mini to boot. Next, I soldered two of the jumpers back to the board for the 1.42 GHz setting with the same result. Fortunately, when I restored all jumpers to their original configuration, the little Mac produced a healthy boot tone and sprung back to life.
As of yet I have not found the correct jumper positions for overclocking the later, faster G4 minis - but even if I do, I am unlikely to perform the operation again. Too much soldering in the same area on a board can damage it, and that's where I feel my obligation to Low End Mac's readers ends. (It doesn't mean we can't still be friends.)
Part VIII: The Part of Tens
This section provides sources on the web for additional help and supplies. It also lists other possible uses for your mini with brief descriptions of how they might be accomplished. These include: An electronic scoreboard, A boat or small aircraft Mac, A mobile Podcast studio and a pro recording studio.
This covers troubleshooting and repairing OS X, disks, memory, and other hardware. This information is useful to any Mac owner.
As mentioned above, if you have one of the "late 2005" mini's with faster G4 processors or an Intel mini, it may be in your best interest to wait for a revised edition of the book.
Even though, in my opinion, it doesn't quite measure up to How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (and what can?), if you have a 1.25 GHz or 1.42 GHz G4 mini, get this book. Even if you perform none of the hacks or mods, you will learn what your Mac mini is really capable of. You will also gain a lot of other solid information that will help you, if not now, then sometime down the road.
Mac mini Hacks & Mods for Dummies. Available at your local book store or by calling 1-800-225-5945. In Canada call 1-800-567-4797. Also available directly from the publisher in paperback and as an E-book.
Available from Amazon for US$15.74.
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